Students and families in Southwest Denver have been underserved for nearly 20 years.
Kepner Middle School has ranked in the bottom 1 percent of middle schools in Colorado for two decades, leading to its restart this year by Denver Public Schools (DPS).
This past March, I was hired as a founding sixth-grade teacher at the new STRIVE Prep Charter School on the Kepner campus, a turnaround school in Southwest Denver.
Nine percent of my incoming sixth-graders were proficient or advanced in math, and 13 percent were proficient or advanced in English language arts (ELA). Of the 27 students in my first period English language arts class, 19 sixth-grade scholars were reading at or below a third-grade level, compared to 27 percent of all incoming STRIVE Prep-Kepner students.
In November, I called families of students who were were struggling and/or had a failing grade in English language arts. One mother’s tone immediately became brusque. “Hablo Español,” I said. She quickly began speaking in Spanish. She said, “of course her son was failing all his classes, because he didn’t know how to read.” Her tone went from short to furious. She wasn’t furious with me but clearly so tired of seeing her son fail because he made it to sixth grade without being able to read.
I said I would work with him after school. As we worked to find him a “just right book” on our school’s library shelves, I realized we didn’t have one; we didn’t have books at the reading level of an average first-grader.
We’re Putting in the Work and Seeing Results
Our leadership and teacher team work tirelessly with students to make up for lost time. We spend the first academic hour of each school day teaching English language development and we operate a special-needs center program, focusing on students with severe cognitive needs.
Recently we received our data from the most recent STAR tests. Our kiddos grew the most out of all STRIVE schools in math and science and since August, they have grown an average of 1.3 years in reading.
We are making huge strides at Kepner, and I commend the district for its action in 2014 to launch this restart process. But, we can’t do it alone. It takes similar efforts at schools across the district and continued courage and leadership of the school board, superintendent and district staff to make tough decisions about a more urgent path forward.
My commitment to our scholars is unwavering, but each day I face real challenges as a teacher who signed up to teach middle school, and is now teaching basic reading skills. In order to do right by our kids, schools must improve at all levels, and starting earlier is easier.
I look forward to the day when this year’s third-graders from our Ruby Hill campus enter sixth grade ready to hit the ground running with complex texts and high-level thinking. This means scholars must have an opportunity to learn how to read in the best classrooms in Denver beginning at age 3, not 11.
‘We Must Live Out Our Promise’
This past December the Denver Public Schools Board of Education voted on the first round of school closures since the School Performance Compact was enacted. This spring, the board will consider placement of new schools as the restart operators for any closed schools, to begin operating in 2018.
I hope that DPS will continue to act upon the pressing need for more great schools in Denver, as they have at Kepner. The district has made great strides on many fronts, but nothing is more critical to the futures of our students or this city than making sure every child has the opportunity to learn.
The board must act with urgency to achieve its goal of having at least 80 percent of DPS students in good schools by 2020, with a sharp focus on elementary. We must live out our promise to do right by all our scholars in Denver.